Fiction · fire keeper

Fire Keeper, Part 6

Part 1 | Part 5

“I know it’s selfish, but please let me do this!”

I’m on my knees and my forehead is touching the floor. I’m bowing to my mother in the most humble way possible, my application to beauty school between us.

This is the culmination of two weeks of work, this is what my future rides on.

After getting encouragement from Matsuoka-san, I started brainstorming compromises. It was tough, but I was able to figure something out after a few days of research online. It was the best I could ever hope for, so I started looking up beauty schools both in and out of the area.

I was lucky, grades for the schools I wanted to attend were within my reach and the backups I decided one were already in my range. I approached Sensei after school and told her my new plans – I made sure to apologize for my rudeness the other day too. She was happy for me, which made me happy. (I’ve since realized that I really like the praise of my elders).

I told Mako about my decision and we started planning life after graduation. Her travel agent programs were close to my beauty schools, so we got excited about living together. We talked almost endlessly about where to live, types of apartments, and all the trendy things we could do as a real ‘adults.’

It was in those moments, those happy, exciting discussions were reality would set in. Despite how much I wanted it, it was still very possible that I wouldn’t be able to leave. I would be stuck at the ryokan with my family until they all died and I would be the last Watanabe unless I had nieces and nephews and they would somehow still be the boss of me.

These past two weeks have just been a huge flux of emotions. I’m glad I had Mako and Matsuoka-san to confide in. I was avoiding my family a lot during this time. I felt bad being around them, like I was plotting to overthrow the business. But, at the same time, it reinforced my feelings. How could I work in such an oppressive environment? I respected my family, but surely they wanted the best for me too…right?

I felt the worst around Itsuki. He always was and I’m sure would always be good to me. I know he does want the best for me, but I still feel terrible about leaving him behind. I don’t want him to think I’m turning my back on the family.

“Hmm.”

The papers scrape across the floor. Since my face is to the ground, I can only guess what Mother looks like right now, but I’m guessing she’s frowning. Either way, she didn’t say no! I’m getting hopefully. My heart is nearly pounding out of my chest.

“Wasn’t I clear before Riko? You’ll be working fulltime after you graduate.”

“Please!” I shout, still keeping my face down, “I’m doing this for the family too!”

“Eeh? Don’t lie Riko.”

“I’m not lying! I want to go to beauty school to help the ryokan! To open a new spa!”

Mother goes silent, but I can hear her rubbing her fingers together. Her thinking tick. I’m getting more and more hopeful, but I’m also incredibly anxious.

“Yuuka tells me your grades are slipping. And where will you get the money to attend these schools?”

“I’m studying, I’ll study even harder! I’ll get a part-time job. I’ll go into debt if I have to!”

“I’ve never heard you say you wanted to be hair stylist or manicurist before. How did this ridiculous idea come to you? This sounds like a superficial fling Riko, a passing fancy that you’ll drop out of in a matter of weeks, like you always do.”

I don’t say anything. I know I’m too angry to hold my tongue.

“Well? Can you explain yourself Riko?”

I keep my head to the ground. I speak in a stiff tone and normal volume, “I always assumed I’d be working at the ryokan. There wasn’t any room for dreaming about other jobs.”

Mother slaps the ground with her palm, “Because the ryokan is real! Supporting your family is real!”

I can’t hold back anymore, I shoot up to my feet and look down at her, “There’s nothing left for me! Yuuka, Shun, Itsuki, Mizuki – they’re running this ryokan just fine without me. I want to support the family but I won’t be everyone’s assistant.”

Mother stands up to face me and for the first time in my life she raises her voice, “There is a place for you. I ensured all my children will have a place within this ryokan, and yet you insult me for thinking otherwise!”

My eyes start to sting and I know I’m close to crying, but I bite my lip to stop myself. “I can make my own place! That’s why I want to open a spa section! You didn’t give us a choice. Have you ever asked us if we wanted to work here? Don’t you think Yuuka wanted to continue her sports? Did you ever consider Itsuki’s dream to study cooking in Tokyo?”

She doesn’t say anything but looks incredibly angry and maybe a little hurt, though it’s hard to recognize such emotions on her.

“Enough, Riko. Don’t speak to your mother with such rudeness.” She sits down and closes her eyes. She looks like she’s meditating, “I’ve had enough of this conversation.” She takes a deep breath, “Leave. You’re banned from the baths until I saw so. And you won’t be getting meals from the restaurant anymore.” She says no more and turns away to avoid looking at me.

I do as she says and leave the room. I’m don’t cry. I clench my jaw to appease my frustrations.

There really is no compromise with her.

~

I find a new purpose in proving my family wrong. I start studying to the best of my abilities to jump my grades up. Without telling my mother, I submit all my applications with Sensei’s help and Mako’s encouragement. I even start looking for part-time work outside of the ryokan to pay tuition, but nothing comes of it.

I start extensively researching all my programs, their specializations, and their course paths. I start thinking about what I would want to focus on and possible alternatives. I’ve told myself esthetician over and over, but I’m also open to being a cosmetologist or maybe a masseuse.

I’m surprised at my own ambition and determination. I guess I’ve been coasting for most of my life, just being average and expecting the inevitable. This is what people call following their passion, though I still have a bit of an unease about it.

Sometimes, when I’m thinking about nothing in particular, I still get that terrible unease about not being accepted into any school washes over me. That, and living with a terrible guilt and awkwardness that will likely never be patched between myself and my mother. I’ll have to be sure to apologize to her, regardless of everything.

Maybe I’ve read too many forum posts and manga, but I just have a terrible feeling that no matter how hard I try, I’ll never completely accomplish my goals. But what are my goals anymore? Sure, one is to attend beauty school, but what will I do after that? I want to open a spa in the ryokan, but it’s very likely mother will forbid it. What then? Move to Tokyo and join a fancy spa? Go to business school so I can only my own store? After I graduate, will I have to cut ties with my family because we can overcome out differences?

All of these thoughts weigh on me. I think it starts to affect my skin, but that could also be because I was banned from the onsen.

One weekday afternoon, I’m studying in my room using flashcards. Even though I’m determined, I find it incredibly boring. I use a technique Mako told me about where I work for 25 minutes, and then take a five minute break.

The doorbell rings as I try to remember the process of kidneys. It’s definitely weird, but since I’m the only one in the house I go answer.

“Excuse me…” Just as I come down the stairs, Matsuoka-san is gingerly coming inside.

“Matsuoka-san!” I exclaim, genuinely surprised, “Please, come in! Um – tea? Would you like tea?” I’m not sure what to do with her. It’s so uncommon for the house to have non-work related guests.

“Well, if you’re offering. Hahaha!”

“Yes! Of course, please sit over here while I get it ready!” I guide her over to the living room and then I rush over to the kitchen, checking the cupboards for a teapot and cups.

After a few minutes, I set a mug of green tea in front of her and take a seat myself. She thanks me and takes a huge gulp – I guess heat isn’t a big deal to her anymore.

“Aaah, lovely!” She remarks. After an awkward pause I pour her some more.

“Umm, so, is there something you needed Matsuoka-san? Not many employees come to the house unless it’s work-related.”

“I imagine! Hahaha! I had to ask Kawaguchi how to get here; I’ve never been before, hahaha!”

“So…?”

“Yes, right. I just wanted to introduce you to my successor!”

“Eeeh? Your successor? They’re here – they’re working today?”

She nods proudly, “Yes! Hahaha, it’s good to leave the basement and not have to worry about getting caught! Though, we won’t be working together, today’s some on-the-job training.”

“This isn’t a dating introduction, right?”

“HAHAHA!!” She smacks the table, unable to hold her amusement, “No, no, nothing like that. I just wanted to make sure you knew. My husband told me how surprised you looked when you two met.”

I make a dumb face from embarrassment and she laughs because of it.

“It doesn’t have to be right now,” Matsuoka-san continues, “but if you have time this evening, he’ll be around until about seven.”

I look in to my tea, contemplating the invitation, “I don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t know if I’ll be around the ryokan as much in the future.”

“Because of your est-esta…spa plans yes? That’s wonderful.”

I shake my head, “Right, but…I had a fight with my mother about that. If I get in, I don’t think I’ll be able to come back home a lot.”

“Oh…that’s unfortunate.” Matsuoka-san looks pretty sad, but nods slowly as though she understands. She thanks for me the tea again and gets up from the table. “Well, come by if you can. There will be other days too so there’s no rush.” She bows slightly and sees herself out.

She bows and makes her way to the front door. I hear her shuffling to get her shoes on. A few awkward moments pass, but I do eventually get up and approach her just as she’s about to close the door.

“I’ll come by tonight.” I say with a firm nod, “After I finish studying, I’ll come say hello.”

Matsuoka-san smiles gently, nods, and sees herself out.

Part 7

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